mfioretti: agriculture*

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  1. ‘Inequality’ is a way of framing social problems appropriate to technocratic reformers, the kind of people who assume from the outset that any real vision of social transformation has long since been taken off the political table. It allows one to tinker with the numbers, argue about Gini coefficients and thresholds of dysfunction, readjust tax regimes or social welfare mechanisms, even shock the public with figures showing just how bad things have become (‘can you imagine? 0.1% of the world’s population controls over 50% of the wealth!’), all without addressing any of the factors that people actually object to about such ‘unequal’ social arrangements: for instance, that some manage to turn their wealth into power over others; or that other people end up being told their needs are not important, and their lives have no intrinsic worth. The latter, we are supposed to believe, is just the inevitable effect of inequality, and inequality, the inevitable result of living in any large, complex, urban, technologically sophisticated society. That is the real political message conveyed by endless invocations of an imaginary age of innocence, before the invention of inequality: that if we want to get rid of such problems entirely, we’d have to somehow get rid of 99.9% of the Earth’s population and go back to being tiny bands of foragers again. Otherwise, the best we can hope for is to adjust the size of the boot that will be stomping on our faces, forever, or perhaps to wrangle a bit more wiggle room in which some of us can at least temporarily duck out of its way.

    Mainstream social science now seems mobilized to reinforce this sense of hopelessness. Almost on a monthly basis we are confronted with publications trying to project the current obsession with property distribution back into the Stone Age, setting us on a false quest for ‘egalitarian societies’ defined in such a way that they could not possibly exist outside some tiny band of foragers (and possibly, not even then). What we’re going to do in this essay, then, is two things. First, we will spend a bit of time picking through what passes for informed opinion on such matters, to reveal how the game is played, how even the most apparently sophisticated contemporary scholars end up reproducing conventional wisdom as it stood in France or Scotland in, say, 1760. Then we will attempt to lay down the initial foundations of an entirely different narrative. This is mostly ground-clearing work. The questions we are dealing with are so enormous, and the issues so important, that it will take years of research and debate to even begin understanding the full implications. But on one thing we insist. Abandoning the story of a fall from primordial innocence does not mean abandoning dreams of human emancipation – that is, of a society where no one can turn their rights in property into a means of enslaving others, and where no one can be told their lives and needs don’t matter. To the contrary. Human history becomes a far more interesting place, containing many more hopeful moments than we’ve been led to imagine, once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what’s really there.


    Quite independently, archaeological evidence suggests that in the highly seasonal environments of the last Ice Age, our remote ancestors were behaving in broadly similar ways: shifting back and forth between alternative social arrangements, permitting the rise of authoritarian structures during certain times of year, on the proviso that they could not last; on the understanding that no particular social order was ever fixed or immutable. Within the same population, one could live sometimes in what looks, from a distance, like a band, sometimes a tribe, and sometimes a society with many of the features we now identify with states. With such institutional flexibility comes the capacity to step outside the boundaries of any given social structure and reflect; to both make and unmake the political worlds we live in. If nothing else, this explains the ‘princes’ and ‘princesses’ of the last Ice Age, who appear to show up, in such magnificent isolation, like characters in some kind of fairy-tale or costume drama. Maybe they were almost literally so. If they reigned at all, then perhaps it was, like the kings and queens of Stonehenge, just for a season.


    The first bombshell on our list concerns the origins and spread of agriculture. There is no longer any support for the view that it marked a major transition in human societies. In those parts of the world where animals and plants were first domesticated, there actually was no discernible ‘switch’ from Palaeolithic Forager to Neolithic Farmer. The ‘transition’ from living mainly on wild resources to a life based on food production typically took something in the order of three thousand years. While agriculture allowed for the possibility of more unequal concentrations of wealth, in most cases this only began to happen millennia after its inception. In the time between, people in areas as far removed as Amazonia and the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East were trying farming on for size, ‘play farming’ if you like, switching annually between modes of production, much as they switched their social structures back and forth. Moreover, the ‘spread of farming’ to secondary areas, such as Europe – so often described in triumphalist terms, as the start of an inevitable decline in hunting and gathering – turns out to have been a highly tenuous process, which sometimes failed, leading to demographic collapse for the farmers, not the foragers.

    Jared Diamond notwithstanding, there is absolutely no evidence that top-down structures of rule are the necessary consequence of large-scale organization. Walter Scheidel notwithstanding, it is simply not true that ruling classes, once established, cannot be gotten rid of except by general catastrophe.

    The pieces are all there to create an entirely different world history. For the most part, we’re just too blinded by our prejudices to see the implications. For instance, almost everyone nowadays insists that participatory democracy, or social equality, can work in a small community or activist group, but cannot possibly ‘scale up’ to anything like a city, a region, or a nation-state. But the evidence before our eyes, if we choose to look at it, suggests the opposite. Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.
    https://www.eurozine.com/change-course-human-history
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  2. Indian agriculture is going to witness Internet of Things (IoT) applications soon as SenRa, a pan India Low-Power Wide-Area Networks (LPWANs) provider for long range-based (LoRa®-based) IoT applications, and Skysens, a Turkey-based LPWAN technology provider, today announced their partnership to bring cutting-edge, low-cost, and long-range solutions to India. The collaboration between the two companies will provide needed solutions in a growing IoT market in India and will provide more efficient and environment friendly offerings. This LoRa® ecosystem partnership brings a combined knowledge of LoRaWAN technology, to include network services, connectivity, and end-device expertise.

    "We are excited to announce our partnership with Skysens. We believe partnerships like this will bring innovative solutions to address some of the current challenges which are present in India today," said Ali Hosseini, Chief Executive Officer of SenRa. "For example, agriculture is the main source of livelihood for about 48% of the Indian population. Due to lack of resources and ongoing climate changes, it is more critical than ever to provide farmers the tools they need to produce crops and manage their limited resources. Leveraging solutions such as Skysens soil sensors, provide farmers the ability to monitor their soil and determine the health of their crops in real-time,” Hosseini added.
    https://www.ruralmarketing.in/industr...tech-disruption-in-indian-agriculture
    Tags: , , , , by M. Fioretti (2018-01-07)
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  3. The business model is unusually communal. The field is “open” in the sense that he sells his produce to 320 people in the immediate neighborhood, who each pay between €220 and €320 per year, depending on their income, for the right to come and harvest food on his land.

    “The important thing is that everyone can join and the strongest can bear the heaviest weight,” Troonbeeckx said, recounting that part of the motivation behind his socially supportive model came from seeing his mother left far worse off after his parents divorced.

    “Since I’m not into international markets or the multinational economic system, I can create my own economy,” he said, looking out over a field of pumpkins and winter salad leaves.

    Troonbeeckx’s farm, though nowhere near as big, follows a similar ethic.

    He employs complex rotational methods that allow his cows to eat the grass, fertilize the soil and then change location to a new pasture so that vegetables can be planted using his newly-enriched soil. But getting such projects off the ground is much harder than it looks — in his first years of farming, he had to work in a restaurant just to makes ends meet.

    “Only people who have dreamt of being a farmer since a child should do it. It’s something that burns deep insides,” Troonbeeckx said. “If that fire does not burn then do not do it.”
    https://www.politico.eu/article/flemi...conventional-wisdom-on-eu-farm-policy
    Tags: , , , by M. Fioretti (2018-01-04)
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  4. They conclude that “If Americans reduced their mean beef consumption from the current ~460g per person per week to ~200g per person per week, the US beef industry could become environmentally sustainable by the narrow definition of this paper.” Easy. Just have one weekly burger instead of two.
    https://arstechnica.com/science/2017/...e-sustainable-cut-beef-eating-in-half
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  5. what happened to cause such a profound shift in the human psyche away from egalitarianism? The balance of archaeological, anthropological and genomic data suggests the answer lies in the agricultural revolution, which began roughly 10,000 years ago.

    The extraordinary productivity of modern farming techniques belies just how precarious life was for most farmers from the earliest days of the Neolithic revolution right up until this century (in the case of subsistence farmers in the world’s poorer countries). Both hunter-gatherers and early farmers were susceptible to short-term food shortages and occasional famines – but it was the farming communities who were much more likely to suffer severe, recurrent and catastrophic famines.

    Hunting and gathering was a low-risk way of making a living. Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers in Namibia traditionally made use of 125 different edible plant species, each of which had a slightly different seasonal cycle, varied in its response to different weather conditions, and occupied a specific environmental niche. When the weather proved unsuitable for one set of species it was likely to benefit another, vastly reducing the risk of famine.

    As a result, hunter-gatherers considered their environments to be eternally provident, and only ever worked to meet their immediate needs. They never sought to create surpluses nor over-exploited any key resources. Confidence in the sustainability of their environments was unyielding.
    The Ju/’hoansi people have lived in southern Africa for hundreds of thousands of years.
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    The Ju/’hoansi people have lived in southern Africa for hundreds of thousands of years. Photograph: James Suzman

    In contrast, Neolithic farmers assumed full responsibility for “making” their environments provident. They depended on a handful of highly sensitive crops or livestock species, which meant any seasonal anomaly such as drought or livestock disease could cause chaos.
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    And indeed, the expansion of agriculture across the globe was punctuated by catastrophic societal collapses. Genomic research on the history of European populations points to a series of sharp declines that coincided first with the Neolithic expansion through central Europe around 7,500 years ago, then with their spread into north-western Europe about 6,000 years ago.

    However, when the stars were in alignment – weather favourable, pests subdued, soils still packed with nutrients – agriculture was very much more productive than hunting and gathering. This enabled farming populations to grow far more rapidly than hunter-gatherers, and sustain these growing populations over much less land.

    But successful Neolithic farmers were still tormented by fears of drought, blight, pests, frost and famine. In time, this profound shift in the way societies regarded scarcity also induced fears about raids, wars, strangers – and eventually, taxes and tyrants.
    Fruits and tubers gathered by the Ju/’hoansi.
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    The Ju/’hoansi traditionally made use of 125 different edible plant species. Photograph: James Suzman

    Not that early farmers considered themselves helpless. If they did things right, they could minimise the risks that fed their fears. This meant pleasing capricious gods in the conduct of their day-to-day lives – but above all, it placed a premium on working hard and creating surpluses.

    Where hunter-gatherers saw themselves simply as part of an inherently productive environment, farmers regarded their environment as something to manipulate, tame and control. But as any farmer will tell you, bending an environment to your will requires a lot of work. The productivity of a patch of land is directly proportional to the amount of energy you put into it.

    This principle that hard work is a virtue, and its corollary that individual wealth is a reflection of merit, is perhaps the most obvious of the agricultural revolution’s many social, economic and cultural legacies.
    From farming to war

    The acceptance of the link between hard work and prosperity played a profound role in reshaping human destiny. In particular, the ability to both generate and control the distribution of surpluses became a path to power and influence. This laid the foundations for all the key elements of our contemporary economies, and cemented our preoccupation with growth, productivity and trade.

    Regular surpluses enabled a much greater degree of role differentiation within farming societies, creating space for less immediately productive roles. Initially these would have been agriculture-related (toolmakers, builders and butchers), but over time new roles emerged: priests to pray for good rains; fighters to protect farmers from wild animals and rivals; politicians to transform economic power into social capital.
    https://www.theguardian.com/inequalit...lity-10000-years-ago?CMP=share_btn_tw
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  6. Average land use area needed to produce one unit of protein by food type, measured in metres squared (m²) per gram of protein over a crop's annual cycle or theaverage animal's lifetime. Average values are based on a meta-analysis of studies across 742 agricultural systems and over 90 unique foods.
    https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/la...-use-per-gram-of-protein-by-food-type
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  7. Garcia and the other workers here didn’t lose their jobs to a robot—they work in tandem with one. And just as well, because California farms are facing a serious labor shortage of perhaps 20 percent. Increasingly sophisticated robots have to pick up the slack, here and around the world. Because if humanity expects to feed its booming population off a static amount of land, it’s going to need help.

    Here in the Salinas Valley, farmers and tech types are teaming up to turn this into a kind of Silicon Valley for agriculture. And they’re not stopping at water-knife-wielding robots. Because it’s data that will truly drive this agricultural revolution. It’s not just about robots doing jobs humans don’t want to do, but AI doing jobs humans can’t do. And AI can’t go anywhere without data.

    For sure, the robots will definitely support the dwindling farming workforce. Fewer immigrant workers are coming to the fields, and their demographics are shifting. “Just with a changing population here in California, we’ve got an aging workforce,” says Mark Borman, president of Taylor Farms California, which operates the robot. “So people who are coming out to do agricultural, we’re not getting that younger population into the job.”

    That means not only using robots to help fill those jobs, but modifying the product they grow to make things easier for the machine.
    https://www.wired.com/2017/05/robots-agriculture
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  8. mong the perspectives, we imagine a European network centred on technological sovereignty. In the world of development and international cooperation associations, this idea has been around since the 1970s, based on appropriate technologies: reclaiming ourselves, being more sociable, connecting and building links throughout Europe so that there are more exchanges between our different countries.

    Our adventure is not without effort. Part of what helps us keep going is that we don’t miss out on poetry, pleasure and being as we are. We thoroughly, and I mean thoroughly, explore the paths and horizons that are available to us.

    One of the objectives for which we believe we are on the right track is the following: while in France local development has always been specialized, today things are actually de-compartmentalized. If we think about things more “globally”, we will participate in developing something richer, more powerful and sustainable. What makes us strong is that we control the whole chain: self-building at the political and collective level.

    We are full of energy: our desire is to testify that the fields we are exploring with the methodologies we use, can be applied to a whole bunch of other things.
    http://commonstransition.org/julien-r...-on-self-build-communities-in-farming
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  9. Agriculture policy since then has followed these recommendations, slowly dismantling support programs that had made midsize family farms viable, including effective supply management through price floors, a crop reserve, and conservation incentives. Instead, Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz famously directed farmers to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” flooding the market with grain and driving down prices. If farmers couldn’t survive the price drops, Butz encouraged them to “get big or get out.” And so they did: the number of farms dropped from nearly 4.8 million in 1954 to 2.1 million by 1990.

    The policies enacted in the 1950s and ’60s came to a head in the ’80s, when the weakened farm support system combined with inflation, a bad export market, and collapsed land and commodity prices in what became known as “the farm crisis.”

    Over a quarter of a million farms were lost in the 1980s, the land was sold to larger operations, families were forced to move, and lifelong farmers were pushed into new jobs (or lack thereof). At least a million people were displaced from their homes and livelihoods in just 10 years—in many cases from land their families had farmed for generations. As the farmers left, so did the Main Streets and manufacturing businesses that had relied on them. Whole towns died off in the course of a decade.

    Throughout the crisis, rural America felt abandoned. Communities were going through catastrophic loss and the rest of the country didn’t seem to care. Many foreclosures were purposefully accelerated by the government lending agency that held their loans, and some were done illegally and without normal due process procedures—at the behest of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials.

    President Reagan made deep cuts in price supports and rural development programs, and joked that he had found a solution to the farm crisis

    For its part, today’s mostly urban-based food movement has been examining what passes for agriculture and rural policy in the Presidential platforms and putting forth a platform of its own. The movement has changed the national conversation about food, but it “barely exists as a political force in Washington,” as Michael Pollan recently observed, and it’s not a strong cultural force in rural America, where corporate agriculture groups have painted good food advocates as “out-of-touch city elites.”

    Feeding into the stereotype is the food movement’s relative silence on the larger implications of farm policy that rural America lives with everyday—from the festering rage that threatens to destabilize the country to the extraordinary economic inefficiencies of today’s system. Remember those dismantled supply management programs? A University of Tennessee/National Farmers Union study found that if just one of those—a farmer-owned crop reserve—had still been in place from 1998 to 2010, rather than the subsidy system cobbled together to patch the holes it left behind, taxpayers would have saved almost $96 billion, while giving farmers higher and more stable prices and keeping food prices more stable for consumers. But neither candidates nor most advocates are talking about anything of the kind.

    With our national character and that kind of money at stake, perhaps it’s time to take another look at what’s been happening in rural America and the very real policy decisions that led to its decline. Agriculture policy is bigger than food; it has consequences for the health and stability of the nation. And failing to address the policy solutions that could make real changes in the lives of many desperate rural Americans will likely continue to make them feel ignored and forgotten enough to seek answers in a demagogue.
    http://civileats.com/2016/10/27/want-...derstand-trumps-rise-head-to-the-farm
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  10. The modern glass greenhouse, often located in temperate climates where winters can be cold, requires massive inputs of energy, mainly for heating but also for artificial lighting and humidity control.

    According to the FAO, crops grown in heated greenhouses have energy intensity demands around 10 to 20 times those of the same crops grown in open fields. A heated greenhouse requires around 40 megajoule of energy to grow one kilogram of fresh produce, such as tomatoes and peppers. source - page 15 » This makes greenhouse-grown crops as energy-intensive as pork meat (40-45 MJ/kg in the USA). source »

    Dutch style all glass greenhouse

    Dutch-style all-glass greenhouses. Picture: Wikipedia Commons.

    In the Netherlands, which is the world's largest producer of glasshouse grown crops, some 10,500 hectares of greenhouses used 120 petajoules (PJ) of natural gas in 2013 -- that's about half the amount of fossil fuels used by all Dutch passenger cars. source: 1/2 »

    The high energy use is hardly surprising. Heating a building that's entirely made of glass is very energy-intensive, because glass has a very limited insulation value. Each metre square of glass, even if it's triple glazed, loses ten times as much heat as a wall.

    Fruit Walls

    The design of the modern greenhouse is strikingly different from its origins in the middle ages * » . Initially, the quest to produce warm-loving crops in temperate regions (and to extend the growing season of local crops) didn't involve any glass at all. In 1561, Swiss botanist Conrad Gessner described the effect of sun-heated walls on the ripening of figs and currants, which mature faster than when they are planted further from the wall.

    Gessner's observation led to the emergence of the "fruit wall" in Northwestern Europe. By planting fruit trees close to a specially built wall with high thermal mass and southern exposure, a microclimate is created that allows the cultivation of Mediterranean fruits in temperate climates, such as those of Northern France, England, Belgium and the Netherlands.

    Fruit wall in the UKAn English fruit wall. Wikipedia Commons.

    The fruit wall reflects sunlight during the day, improving growing conditions. It also absorbs solar heat, which is slowly released during the night, preventing frost damage. Consequently, a warmer microclimate is created on the southern side of the wall for 24 hours per day.

    Fruit walls also protect crops from cold, northern winds. Protruding roof tiles or wooden canopies often shielded the fruit trees from rain, hail and bird droppings. Sometimes, mats could be suspended from the walls in case of bad weather.

    Fruit walls pruning

    The fruit wall appears around the start of the so-called Little Ice Age, a period of exceptional cold in Europe that lasted from about 1550 to 1850. The French quickly started to refine the technology by pruning the branches of fruit trees in such ways that they could be attached to a wooden frame on the wall.

    This practice, which is known as "espalier", allowed them to optimize the use of available space and to further improve upon the growth conditions. The fruit trees were placed some distance from the wall to give sufficient space for the roots underground and to provide for good air ciculation and pest control above ground.
    http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2015/12/fruit-walls-urban-farming.html
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